After staying with my longtime friend Jeff Norris in Beaumont, California for about two weeks, it was time for me to hit the road once again, in an attempt to make it home in time to spend Christmas with my family. Jeff’s house is conveniently located only a couple hundred feet from Interstate 10, which was good because I had been hoping to follow I-10 pretty far east. Mostly I wanted to follow I-10 because I figured I could expect reasonably warm weather along I-10 through Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Louisiana, whereas I-40 or I-70 would almost certainly keep me in considerably colder temperatures. But I also wanted to follow I-10 because I enjoy the cities and sights of I-10.
Another reason I didn't want to take I-70 is that I really don't like being in the state of Kansas. In fact, I swore about ten years ago that I would NEVER set foot in Kansas again. Unfortunately, I had to break that promise to myself once I agreed to help Patrick Johnson with his illegitimate and unsafe "business venture." (As of 1/2/2007, I still have not been paid for my work. You better watch out for the IRS, Patrick, because they will be coming after you very soon if you don't pay me the full amount you promised.) Anyway, there was just no way I was going to head right back through Kansas. Not a chance.
As I prepared to leave California, I had some vague plans regarding how I wanted to make my way home. First I wanted to stop in Quartzsite, Arizona to see my pal Otis Gunn, who lives there in the winter months, operating a pizza trailer near the town's swap meets. I figured I'd stay in Quartzsite maybe a night or two, then try to head east as quick as I could, in hopes of spending a day in New Orleans to witness the destruction of Hurricane Katrina. If New Orleans was in the condition I expected, I wanted to document how little the US government seems to care about the welfare of poor American people. I wanted to see if there are still refrigerators resting on tree branches a year and a half after it all happened. I wanted to see a lot of things, just to experience what the pictures haven't been able to show me. But even if I was able to make it to New Orleans in time to spend a day there, I knew I would have to start heading north, toward Ohio, right away.
Friday, December 15, 2006
I think it was about 2:00 PM when I finally headed out the door from Jeff's house. Even though I was physically out the door, I wasn't actually gone yet because Jeff and his friend Dave Jones were about to give me a ride a few miles down the road to Banning, California, near the Morongo Indian Reservation (and casino). We all figured that particular exit would be a good place for me to catch a ride to (or toward) Quartzsite.
After saying thanks and goodbye to Jeff and Dave in the A&W parking lot, I walked a couple hundred feet to the I-10 interchange. But before I could make it to my ultimate hitching post—the eastbound entrance ramp—I was sidetracked by an older gentleman (John Martin) holding up some large print advertisements for exiting westbound travelers to see. (Apparently he was doing it for some cult-like religious group that "helps" the area's reasonably large homeless population. He did not seem homeless himself, though.) I talked to John for about half an hour before finally walking the rest of the way to the eastbound entrance ramp to catch a ride to wherever.
There was another guy holding up the same kind of sign next to the eastbound exit ramp. I didn't talk to him, though, because my path did not take me past him.
Before long, yet another fellow showed up and stationed himself directly across the eastbound exit ramp from Sign Guy #2. As he approached the ramp, I noticed he was pulling a smallish dolly or carrier of some sort. Shortly it became clear to me that he was selling something, because exiting drivers were stopping to talk to him, then making exchanges through their open windows.
Eventually, after the sign guy had been picked up by his cult masters, I decided to take a break from hitchhiking to find out what my merchant neighbor was selling. I felt it was safe to leave all my stuff at my post, but I took the camcorder with me, in case he had anything interesting to say.
It turns out that my interchange cohort, Walter Dexter, was selling fresh mistletoe, which he does every year during the Christmas season. He even gave me one. Although I had to keep our conversation pretty short so I could resume my hitchhiking position across the street, I really enjoyed talking to Walter. He is one of many amazingly friendly people I met on the road, and I think it may have been this encounter that made me start realizing just how lucky I was to be out on my own like this, living a simple, vagabond life.
After I headed back to my spot, the heavy winds began making the nice California day feel not-so-nice. The temperature was probably in the 60s or so, but that wind really has a way of making it feel a lot colder, especially as the sun approaches its setting point late in the afternoon. Not to worry, though, for two reasons: 1) Because before I left Jeff's house, Dave gave me a hooded sweatshirt; and 2) Because I'd have a ride within a half-hour or so.
When a shiny red car pulled over on the side of the entrance ramp, I picked up all my stuff and looked across the street to wave goodbye to Walter. He waved back at me, then I made my way to the passenger-side door to assess the situation. As I spoke to the driver, he told me he was going to Palm Springs, which is only about 20 miles up the road from Banning. Nevertheless, I put my gear in his back seat and joined him in the front.
As Pedro Chacon drove me toward Palm Springs, the conversation flowed. After I told him I was ultimately trying to get to Columbus, Ohio, he told me about a girl he'd dated from Columbus. Like me, she was a Buckeye football fanatic, from what I recall. But that really doesn't matter. What does matter, then?
This is what matters:
Riding with Pedro, exchanging friendly chit-chat, I began to realize that people who stop to pick up hitchhikers are the kindest, friendliest people you could ever hope to meet. Not just because I was hitchhiking and these particular individuals happened to pick me up. No, it goes way deeper than that. What I found over and over with the people who picked me up is that they possess a special kind of concern for their fellow human being that drives them to commit random acts of kindness most people would never even consider doing, beginning with stopping to offer a total stranger a ride. They didn't just do something nice for me; they do nice things for lots of people, on a regular basis.
After the relatively short ride, Pedro dropped me off in the parking lot of a truck stop near Palm Springs. I immediately walked to my home away from home: the interstate on-ramp. The weather in Palm Springs was much nicer than it was in Banning, only 20 miles behind me to the west. The difference was that in Palm Springs there was no wind. None. (That seemed kind of strange because I was right next to all those huge windmills you've probably seen in movies.) And it was probably a few degrees warmer, too. So, fortunately, I did not have to deal with any extra unpleasant intangibles beyond the usual stuff like standing in one place, keeping my head up at all times so everyone could see my face. (More about those aspects of hitchhiking later.)
Within about 20 minutes, a guy stopped to ask me where I was headed. He said he was going to La Quinta, which I think is about 30 miles from Palm Springs. Needing to make a quick decision, I decided to pass on this opportunity because I felt like I was in a good spot to find the ride I was looking for. About 15 minutes later, another guy stopped to ask me where I was headed. He was only going about 10 or 20 miles down the road, so I had to pass on this opportunity, too.
One thing you learn right away when hitchhiking in this manner is that you need to make a lot of very quick decisions. Some questions you need to ask yourself every time someone stops to offer you a ride:
- Does this person seem like a safe driver?
- Is there any chance this person might try to victimize me in any way?
- Does this driver have a personality I can deal with for the next three or four hours?
- Even though this driver might get me down the road a good ways, will he drop me off in a decent place to find another ride?
- Where the fucking hell is La Quinta?
- And so on and so on...
There is so much information to process that you simply cannot make an informed decision. You just have to go with your instinct. But you have to do it instantly, for at least a couple reasons. First of all, you don't want to keep the driver in a hazardous position, as is usually the case when someone pulls over on an on-ramp, due to the on-ramp's narrow width and the fact that most on-ramps don't have much shoulder area. (Many of them have no shoulders at all.) The second reason you have to make such quick decisions is out of courtesy for the driver. You have to assume that they expect you to make a pretty damn quick decision. After all, they are trying to get somewhere themselves, and they really don't need your assistance to get them there.
After the second driver stopped to offer me a ride, I stayed at the on-ramp for maybe another half an hour. By then it had been dark for a little while. Because of the darkness, I figured many of the passing drivers couldn't see me at all, and the rest of them probably couldn't see me clearly enough to decide whether I appeared safe enough to pick up. So I headed back over to the truck stop, where people would be able to get a good look at me without having to make an instant decision. At the truck stop I plopped my ass down pretty close to the main entrance on the "four-wheeler" side, where I then pulled out my spiral notebook and wrote, with a Sharpie:
I AM LOOKING
FOR A RIDE
FOR A RIDE
It looked something like that, anyway. (I usually write in all capitals.)
I placed the notebook on top of my book bag and situated it so people entering the store could easily read it. I didn't bother anyone because my objective was clear for everyone to see and because I didn't want to give the management a good reason to run me off.
After waiting patiently for probably about two hours, a man walked by and asked me where I was trying to go. I responded, "Ultimately Ohio, but right now I'm just trying to get to Quartzsite."
His response at first seemed to be heading in the direction of, "I wish I could help you, but I'm just not in position right now." However, I could see the arrow in his mind turning back the other way. He then said, "Well, I wasn't planning to go all the way to Quartzsite. I'm going to Lake Havasu City, and usually I head north quite a bit before Quartzsite, but I suppose I can take you to Quartzsite."
So I was all like, "Sweet, man" (or something to that effect), as I stood up to follow my new ride, Rudy Montez, to the street, where he had parked his heavy duty pickup truck and trailer.
At about 7:00 or 7:30 PM, I was finally on my way out of Palm Springs, California, heading toward Quartzsite, Arizona. Rudy and I immediately struck up some serious conversation. We talked so much that it took well over an hour for me to find a moment to call my pal Otis in Quartzsite to let him know I was on my way there. I guess that’s just what happens when you get two extremely friendly people together in a small space with an engine.
A current resident of Lake Havasu City, Arizona, Rudy told me he used to be a California Highway Patrol officer. That surprised me a little bit because he didn’t really seem like a cop. So I said, “Oh, yeah? An ex-cop, eh,” at which point he told me he is not very fond of the term ‘cop.’
His response made me think back to about third grade, when my teacher told the class that we shouldn’t refer to cops as ‘cops’ because people tend to use the word ‘cop’ in a derogatory manner. For some reason, her remark stuck with me all these years, even though I really don’t agree that people mean to imply anything derogatory when using the term ‘cop.’ Maybe when they say “fucking cop” or one of the many variations of “fucking cop,” but not when they simply use the word ‘cop’ in normal conversation.
I apologized and told Rudy I didn’t mean anything negative when I said it. He told me not to worry about it, then he elaborated on why he doesn’t like the word ‘cop.’ His explanation surprised me.
Rudy said that unlike my third-grade teacher, he doesn’t think of ‘cop’ as an inherently derogatory word. Rather, he dislikes the word ‘cop’ because his experience as a California Highway Patrol officer has shown him that many officers of the law are driven by some kind of destructive force—a power trip, perhaps. That’s the kind of person he thinks of when he hears the word ‘cop,’ and he just doesn’t like for people to assume he operated on their level. (Keep in mind, these are my words, based only on my memory of what Rudy told me, so please do not go judging Rudy for what may be my failure to adequately communicate his thoughts.)
He said he never really fit in well with fellow officers because he approached his job as if he was a public servant—you know, what a cop is really supposed to be—while so many other “peace officers” choose the Eric Cartman approach: “You must respect my authoritah!” (Now, if the bulk of cops didn’t actually behave that way, Cartman’s caricature simply would not be funny because no one would get it. But it is funny, precisely because it’s an accurate portrayal of the typical law enforcement officer.)
Instead of just writing tickets and fucking with people nonstop, Rudy did what he thought would benefit society as a whole. He had no need to feed his ego, like the “Cartman cops” love to do. If he saw someone driving unsafely, for example, he might approach the car and follow closely for a couple minutes, just to give the driver a chance to think: “Oh shit, there’s a cop on my ass. I’d better get my shit together.” If that didn’t correct the problem, he might turn on the lights and pull the car over, but not necessarily to write a ticket. Y’see, there are lots of ways to make California’s highways safer, and the process doesn’t have to involve pissing people off for the fun of it.
So let’s now imagine that Rudy is about to pull over a driver who was swerving, veering, and otherwise not giving it his best effort. Before pulling over the driver, Rudy also notices that the dangerous driver is talking on the phone. Rudy naturally suspects the phone call may be contributing to the driver’s erratic behavior. It might simply be that the distraction of talking on the phone is causing the driver’s poor control, but it could also be that the driver is having an intense argument with his wife. Either way, this guy needs to be off the road ASAP, at least to regain his composure. But does he need a citation as well? Will a citation really make the highway safer?
(Remember, this is a hypothetical situation, based solely on my limited understanding of another man's personality.)
Once the driver stops, Rudy approaches the vehicle and asks the driver if he knows why he’s been pulled over. The driver essentially has two response options: 1) Be a dick; or 2) Don’t be a dick.
This particular driver says, “I’m sorry, officer. I know I was driving a little crazy back there. The dean at the high school just called me to tell me he suspended my kid for three days for wearing a plain red hat to class. Frankly, I’m a little pissed off about it because, well, he’s trying to kick my kid out of school for three days for wearing a hat!?! I mean…[sigh, puzzled look].”
Rudy says, “I understand why you’re so upset, Mr. Motorist, but we really can’t have you driving around so distracted.”
“I’m sorry, officer. Really, I never drive like that, and I understand why you pulled me over.”
“Well, do you think you can put your emotions on hold for a while and stay focused on your driving for the rest of your trip, Mr. Motorist?”
“Good. Then I’m going to let you go on home now, OK. I think you should probably sit here for a couple minutes and take some deep breaths before you get back into traffic, all right. Just make sure you’ve calmed down before you start driving again, so you can keep it safe for everyone else sharing the road with you.”
“Thank you, officer. I really appreciate your understanding.”
“Don’t mention it. Just keep it safe out there, OK.”
“All right. Thanks.”
Now, if the driver had been all belligerent and stuff, I imagine Rudy probably would have cited him. Not to demonstrate his power over the crazy driver or anything like that, but to teach the guy something about the consequences of being a dangerous, law-breaking asshole. Sometimes people just need to learn things the hard way.
I can really identify with Rudy’s vision of what a cop should be because I left the teaching “profession” for very similar reasons. Unlike most teachers, I wasn’t in it for the glory of being considered a “professional;” I was in it to be a public servant. My ideal classroom wasn’t full of privileged white kids from middle class suburban homes who actually enjoy being at school. No, I wanted to teach in the ghetto, where countless disadvantaged, poor, malnourished, school-hating human children of all colors could really use someone like me—someone who cares. But that’s a topic for some other day.
Before continuing with my travel tales, I want to let you know that I did not make up the story about some kid receiving three days of suspension for wearing a hat to school. Nope, the kid in that story was me, Ryan Michael Powell. There was no phone call to a driving dad or anything like that (because it was 1989 or 1990), but the rest of it actually happened.
Yup, one day when I was a sophomore at Westland High School, I dared to wear a hat to school. It wasn't a plain red hat like the one in my cop story; it was actually a white hat with a black logo that read: "Limited Edition Drum & Bugle Corps."
Just after my lunch period on the day I wore the hat to school, as I walked from the commons to my 8th-period classroom, Sgt. Hoy (the ROTC instructor) told me to remove my hat. Sgt. Hoy was an annoying little squirt, barely over five feet tall, so I just ignored him and kept walking toward my class. However, "Rotsy" instructors like Sgt. Hoy don't take kindly to being ignored by high school sophomores, so he wriggled his way through the parade of teenagers to catch up with me. Then, when he caught me, he grabbed my arm and marched me to the school office, where he wrote up a discipline report and turned it in to Mr. Dave Holland, one of the school's four punishment experts.
Even though I'd never been sent to the office for any kind of behavior problem, Mr. Holland—such a caring and wise individual—decided my act of insubordination warranted three days of suspension. So not only did I have to stay away from school for three days, but I also would lose 2 percentage points in all of my classes for each day I was suspended. That meant I could earn no better than 94% in any of my classes for that particular grading period, even if I aced the class. It meant that if I actually earned 95% of the possible point total in any of my classes, I would still only receive credit for 89%, giving me a B instead of a solid A.
Yeah, you bet I was a little pissed off.
So when I got home I opened up my Westland High School student handbook to read the school rules and the consequences for breaking particular rules, because no one gets suspended three days for wearing a hat at school.
And you know what I found out? I found out Dave Holland is a fucking idiot.
First of all, there was no rule prohibiting students from wearing hats in school. We all understood that we weren't supposed to wear hats in school, and we even thought it was a rule, but that rule simply did not exist. The closest thing to a hat rule was a segment reading: "Students may be asked to remove hats, sunglasses, headphones, etc." But it wasn't a rule, and there were no consequences listed.
So why were they suspending me for three days? Oh yeah, for insubordination.
Dig this. The definition for insubordination, which I'll never forget, was: "Failure to follow reasonable rules." And the clearly-written penalty for insubordination was three days of after-school detention, not three days of suspension.
Well, as I have already established, I broke no rule by wearing the hat, so throw out the insubordination charge. Furthermore, I wasn't in the office for disobeying a command by a power mad school employee who doesn't actually know the school's rules, so you can't punish me for that, either. And even if there had been a rule prohibiting students from wearing hats, I contend to this day that it wouldn't have been a reasonable rule. So Westland High School had absolutely no justification to punish me in any way. That is, of course, according to the rules they wrote.
After reading the handbook thoroughly, I went back to the school with my parents and demonstrated, using the school's own student handbook rhetoric, that I hadn't done anything wrong. No, I proved that I hadn't done anything wrong. (OK, I did injure Sgt. Hoy's fragile ego a little. But that's not against the rules, either.)
So, again, why did you try to suspend me for three days, Mr. Holland?
Simply because you are one individual in a long line of sick, sadistic, illiterate pricks Westland High School has employed over the years. You get off on fucking with helpless kids, most of whom are smarter than you. No other reason. You should be real proud of yourself, Dave Holland. Not just for fucking with me, but for fucking with thousands and thousands of other kids, redirecting many of them toward their current, enviable lives as gas station attendants.
After a long fight with the administration assholes at Westland, I ended up serving three days of after-school detention.
Fuck you, Dave Holland. And fuck you, Westland High School.
Meanwhile, back at the Hall of Justice...
As Rudy and I ventured deeper into the California desert, away from the gigantic expanse of city that begins at the Pacific Ocean and ends about 150 miles from that same ocean, Rudy told me a story that reinforced my growing suspicion that hitchhiking is a surefire way to meet the best people on the planet. It's a story I wish I'd captured on videotape, even though it was too dark to get any decent video.
Rudy's story took place when he was still with the California Highway Patrol. However, I have no idea when that was, and it's not an important part of the story, so let's just say it happened about 8 years ago.
I believe the story begins at a McDonald's, where Rudy had gone to buy some breakfast. At this McDonald's he noticed a teenage boy who appeared to be a runaway. Actually, I think Rudy likened his first impressions of this kid to his first impressions of me sitting at the truck stop in Palm Springs. The kid was just minding his own business, not bugging people for money or food or anything. But Rudy sensed that maybe the kid was in need of something, so he did some investigating.
Rudy asked the kid if he wanted anything to eat, but the kid wasn't hungry. This initial conversation must have sparked some additional discourse, though, because Rudy ended up finding out that the kid had recently run away from home. It would have been easy to assume that the kid had run away from strict parents who wouldn't let him go out and get high every night or something like that, but that wasn't the case. In reality, the kid ran away because his dad was all messed up on drugs. The kid just couldn't take it anymore.
Sensing that the kid wanted to set his life in the right direction, Rudy thought about a contractor he knew who was always on the lookout for good workers. So he made the kid an offer. Rudy said, "If I set you up with a motel room right over there for tonight, would you be willing to work for my friend early tomorrow morning?"
The kid showed interest in Rudy's proposal, but Rudy kind of felt like he may not have been completely serious. Nevertheless, Rudy got the kid a motel room for the night, optimistic that it might be the spark for a brighter future in the kid's life.
Early the next morning, the kid got up and went to work for Rudy's contractor friend. But that's just the beginning of the story because he ended up working for Rudy's friend for at least the next couple years before moving on to bigger and better things.
I really wish Rudy could tell you that story because he told it a lot better than I did. Plus I probably got a lot of it wrong. So Rudy, if you're out there reading this, let's hear from you, eh.
Wait a minute. I could just call him.
Are you starting to understand what I mean when I say hitchhiking is a great way to meet the most kind-hearted people? Y'see, Rudy didn't have to offer the kid a motel room or a job opportunity, just like no one else offered the kid a motel room or a job opportunity. And chances are, no one else would have offered the kid a motel room or a job opportunity. But Rudy did offer the kid a motel room for the night, even after he suspected the kid might renege on the labor part of the offer, because Rudy is the kind of person who looks for goodness in people. When presented with the opportunity, Rudy tries to make the world a better place, one person at a time.
What might have become of that kid if Rudy hadn't so selflessly donated a few minutes of his life and a small amount of his hard-earned money? Would the kid ever have found anyone else willing to give him an opportunity to succeed? Maybe he would have ended up shooting smack into his arm five times a day until finally injecting just a tiny bit too much one lonely night, dying beside a dumpster at the age of 25. Maybe he would have ended up in the streets of Los Angeles or New York City, resorting to giving blowjobs in filthy bathroom stalls just to keep himself alive.
You never know what could have become of him. Even if he did have all the right intentions, life could have ended up beating him down and turning him into a dead 25-year-old junkie.
But Rudy didn't let that happen. Consequently, I respect the hell out of Rudy for that act of kindness, as well as all the acts of kindness he never told me about but that I know he's done.
At just about 10:00 PM, Pacific Standard Time, Rudy and I crossed the Arizona state line, meaning it was actually 11:00 PM, Mountain Standard Time. We were now only 17 miles from Quartzsite.
Twenty minutes later we pulled into the Pilot station in Quartzsite, where I called my buddy Otis to let him know I'd arrived. Assuming Otis lived in a relatively large RV, I was hoping he would offer to let me crash with him for the night. Instead, he told me I should look for a room at the Yacht Club, which was just a few hundred feet east of the Pilot station.
No big deal. I said I was hoping Otis would offer to let me crash at his place, not that I expected him to make the offer. Besides, as I found out the next day, Otis doesn't live in a relatively large RV; he lives in one of those small truck caps, with barely enough space for one person to live comfortably.
I wasn't sure about the Yacht Club, though, and I was having a difficult time retaining Otis's instructions, so I ended up deciding I should check out the Super 8 Motel I'd noticed down the road behind us. Rudy was kind enough to drive me to the Super 8 and hang around while I registered at the front desk.
When I'd finished with the motel registration chore, Rudy told me he would be back on the road the next morning, driving through Quartzsite on his way to Yuma, then passing through Quartzsite again on his way to Phoenix later in the day. Knowing I intended to hit Phoenix on my way home, he told me I was welcome to join him for the ride. He then gave me his phone number, which I called immediately so he would have my number in his phone.
I thanked Rudy for his kindness and told him I might take him up on his offer tomorrow. Rudy also thanked me, I guess for being a friendly companion, but mostly because Rudy is just a friendly, polite individual. Then we said goodbye and I went to my motel room.
After setting my bags down in my room at about midnight, I decided I really needed something to eat. All I'd eaten that day was two bowls of Frosted Mini Wheats, and that was over 12 hours ago at Jeff's house. Unfortunately I was over a mile from the nearest convenience store or fast food joint, and I only had $19 to my name, so I had to try to find something remotely filling and remotely inexpensive in the motel's vending machine.
Opting to buy a pack of 4 Soft Batch cookies, which cost 75 cents, I slid a dollar bill in the vending machine. But dammit, wouldn't you know I pressed the wrong button. No problem, though, because the vending machine had the two-button system, where you have to hit a lettered button and a numbered button to get your treat. So I pressed the coin return button and reached down to retrieve my four quarters. To my surprise, my four quarters had become six quarters, so I decided to use my new fortune to buy a second pack of Soft Batch cookies.
Mmmm, what a nutritious dinner.
Before I continue, I want to make it perfectly clear that I did have a credit card with me, along with the $19 I had in my pocket. My goal was to get back home without using the credit card, but sometimes it's just not possible to do things exactly how you'd like to do things, especially when you are injured or when you risk freezing to death. So yes, I ended up using the credit card a few times during the remainder of my trip, but only when I felt I really needed to use it. And no, the credit card was not in my name. Not officially, anyway. It did have my name on it, but I wasn't the person paying the balance.
I revealed this bit of information for one reason only: Because I am an honest person. I could omit all the non-tough aspects of my story in an attempt to make people believe I'm some kind of indestructible superhero, but that would make me a liar, and I just wouldn't be able to respect myself for that. Besides, I did put myself through a lot more shit than most people could have handled. And now that you know I'm not hiding anything from you or trying to pretend I never gave in to the temptation of using Mommy's money to spend a comfortable night in a motel room, maybe you'll be more apt to appreciate the hard times I am going to tell you about.
So if anyone reading this thinks I'm a spoiled little brat because I had the green light to use a credit card that wasn't mine, get over it. The way I see it, it was an early Christmas gift. And you know what: You received Christmas gifts from your parents, too. You just received them in a different form and on a different day.
Also, if there is anyone out there who wants to make believe my journey was even kind of easy simply because I stayed in a few motel rooms or because I had access to emergency funds, you're just plain wrong. I was almost constantly tired, hungry, shivering cold, and in intense physical pain (from sore muscles and a serious injury). And I have video footage to prove it.
Saturday, December 16, 2006
Having eaten almost nothing the previous day, I woke up at about 8:30 AM to put some continental breakfast in my stomach. To my chagrin, the Super 8's breakfast spread consisted of little more than pre-packaged, thawed-out danish pastry thingies and orange drink. (I think they served coffee and English muffins, as well, but I was not interested in either of those items.)
The pastries were the brand with wrappers that, for some reason, each read: "Lemon, Apple, Blueberry, & Cream Cheese," even though each pastry contains only one of the four flavors. You know what I'm talking about--those wrappers that manage to keep you confused for about five minutes because you've forgotten about the other time you went through this at some other motel in some other state.
It starts like this: You accidentally notice the pastries don't all look alike, even though all the wrappers are identical. One pastry has blue gook in the middle, but another pastry has yellow gook. Wait a minute... That other pastry has creamy white gook in the middle. So you're like, "What the fuck, man?!?"
Then, after a few seconds, your mind finally puts it all together: "Oh, I get it. Either the manufacturer is just too cheap to make appropriate wrappers for each flavor or they're too lazy to spend a few seconds composing a simple sentence that could adequately communicate the message that each pastry contains only one of the fillings listed on the wrapper." Unfortunately, while you've been trying to figure it out, other guests have nearly picked the pastry tray clean. So you look at the tray once again and you're all like: "God dammit, there's nothing but apple left."
After eating three pastries, I headed back to my room to take a shower, intending to check out of the motel well before the 11:00 deadline. However, some unexpected conversations delayed my check-out, keeping me at the motel until 10:45.
Once I finally checked out of the motel, I picked up all my stuff and started walking toward Otis's pizza trailer, which stands about a mile and a half from the Super 8. At this point in my journey, a mile and a half with 45 lbs. of baggage hanging from my shoulders felt like a long-ass walk, especially because approximately two-thirds of that weight was concentrated in a large bag with only one shoulder strap.
Having only one strap, I constantly had to deal with the 30-pound bag digging into my shoulder, slipping off my shoulder, and keeping me considerably out of balance. It forced me to put a lot more work into every movement than should have been necessary, but it also made me tougher and it helped me understand some of the changes I'll need to make before I can head out on the road in the future.
Quartzsite is a very unusual town. It has a miniscule permanent population and very few free-standing buildings, but each winter thousands of vendors and transient characters flock to town for the seasonal swap meets. They come from just about everywhere, and almost all of the vendors live in small, simple RVs and campers on the periphery of the swap meets.
During the swap meet season, Quartzsite feels like a gathering of prospectors--a boomtown. In fact, I had the impression many of the townsfolk actually are prospectors, but most of the temporary residents are prospectors only in a metaphoric sense. They stake their claims, set up their equipment, display their goods, and wait for the river of gold to drive into town from Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix, and who knows where else.
They sell onyx, silver, turquoise, and Jesus. Pizza, burgers, burritos, and leather. To the best of my knowledge, visitors come to Quartzsite mostly for rocks, minerals, and gemstones, most of which is the real deal. But much of the merchandise is snake oil, sold by snake oil salesmen. Whether you realize it or not, you take your chances when you buy goods in a town like Quartzsite.
Every now and then the visitors need a break from their snake oil shopping sprees to put some grub in their bellies. Hungry out-of-towners have a few fast food chains to choose from--maybe even some locally-owned, year-round restaurants--but I think real Quartzsite food comes from trailers.
It was about 11:30, maybe 12:00, when I finally arrived at Otis's pizza trailer. Having never seen the trailer before, I was impressed with the setup. It's shiny and clean, with customized awnings and a semi-sheltered dining area right next to it. Not a bad place to get a slice.
Otis received a phone call just as I walked up to the trailer, so I put my bags on the ground, took a seat on one of the plastic dining chairs, and called Rudy to find out what time he thought he might pass through Quartzsite on the way to Phoenix. Having slept on it, I'd decided to go ahead and ride to Phoenix with Rudy, as long as he didn't plan to leave Quartzsite too early. After calling Rudy, I was relieved to find out he was still at home in Lake Havasu City. That meant it would be several hours before he'd be ready to give me another ride.
Otis was still on the phone when I finished my phone call, so I dug out the camcorder and walked up to the front of the pizza trailer and talked to Otis's helper, Reva Callaway, for several minutes. Reva had a very friendly personality and no fear of cameras, so it was easy to strike up a conversation with her and get some non-hammed video footage, even before Otis had a chance to introduce the two of us.
Upon completion of his phone call, Otis welcomed me to the Pizza Wheel, showed me the interior of the trailer, and offered me a slice of pizza. I accepted his offer and snatched me a piece of pepperoni pizza. I must say Otis serves a pretty tasty slice.
With the Quartzsite swap meet season just kicking off, there weren't many shoppers around, even on this warm Saturday afternoon. As a result, there wasn't much of a pizza market, either, so I spent much of the day shooting the shit with Otis, Reva, and some of Otis's neighboring vendors.
I called Rudy again at about 3:00, to get an update on his progress. When he didn't answer, I left a voice-mail message saying I'd call back in about an hour unless I heard from him before then. Not hearing from him in that hour, I called him again at 4:00. Answering the phone this time, he told me he was between Quartzsite and Yuma, on his way to Yuma. He then told me to call back in about three hours.
Closing time in Quartzsite is dictated by the sun. When the sun goes down, they roll up the sidewalks and close the shops. In mid-December, this occurs at about 6:00. But before Otis closed the Pizza Wheel on this particular Saturday, a local woman and her teenage daughter pulled up to buy a couple pizzas.
From a folding stool by the door inside the trailer I conversed with the mom while Otis prepared their pizzas. It was a pleasant conversation for a while, but things began to turn when we started revealing our respective business philosophies. It all began when she told a story about a trip to Wal-Mart. She said while she was checking out, the baggers at the check-out counter kept talking to each other and having a good old time (instead of treating her like a queen, I guess). She disapproved of their behavior and just couldn't believe the nerve of those kids. She said the baggers should take pride in their jobs and feel fortunate that they've been given an opportunity to earn some money.
Without getting into too much detail, I said I couldn't blame the Wal-Mart baggers for giving less than 100 percent effort because, realistically, they're not getting paid enough to give one-tenth of a shit. Essentially my stance is that even if the baggers in question do a completely half-ass job, they're still giving more than they're getting. If it wasn't true, they wouldn't have a job. (Let's just say the 7 dollars Wal-Mart pays them each hour doesn't make the slightest impact on Wal-Mart's income statements.)
You get what you pay for. If the baggers were earning $20 an hour, they wouldn't be fucking around, for lots of reasons. First of all, there's competition for jobs that pay $20 an hour. Second, no one wants to lose a job that pays $20 an hour. Third, Wal-Mart ain't gonna let that kind of shit happen in a position that pays $20 an hour.
Show me a bagger that earns $20 an hour and I'll show you a bagger that doesn't annoy the lady at the Pizza Wheel.
Yeah, I know what you're thinking. You're thinking I'm just some dumb brat who's bitter because he's never had a good job. Well, you're right: I've never had a good job. But you're completely wrong if you think I'm just pissed off because I believe I've been wronged by my employers. No, this is just simple economics, and I think about all of this stuff more from a prospective employer's point of view than from an employee's point of view.
I'm not saying everyone should get paid $20 an hour. I'm saying that if I was the owner of a small business, I would begin by using my people skills to find and hire good workers. I would treat them with respect from Day 1. I would start them out at a reasonable wage and train them properly, making my expectations very clear, as well as the consequences of not meeting my expectations. I'd let them know that they should expect me to lead by example, and they should let me know when I fail to lead by example. When they show me they're worth more than I'm paying them, I'd raise their pay because I don't want to lose the people who help me keep my business profitable.
On the rare occasion that I find out I probably shouldn't have hired someone, I'd let them know what's up. I'd let them know how things need to change. And I'd let them know that if things don't change, they'll need to look for other employment.
Labor is not an expense. Labor is an investment. When you make bad investments, you have to deal with the consequences.
The lady at the pizza trailer, who owned a struggling RV lot, wasn't with me. She said I don't know what I'm talking about because I have never owned a business. (It's amazing how many failing small business owners have told me I don't know anything about running a business simply because I haven't done it.) It was clear to me by now that there was no point in continuing this conversation. I told her I felt like this discussion was on the verge of becoming an argument, and I didn't want to piss off Otis's customers, so I just wasn't going to talk about it anymore.
Soon enough her pizzas were ready. Before she left I said, "Have a good night," to try to show that I didn't feel any hostility toward her. Later on I apologized to Otis for the heated discussion.
After a couple hours of hanging out with Otis and the guys and chowing on a couple slices of pizza, I had to figure out what I was going to do for the night. Even though it was at least an hour after the time Rudy told me to call him back, I still hadn't called him because I was starting to realize he's not very good at sticking to a schedule and because I was beginning to feel like a bit of a pest by calling him so much. And I guess I just didn't want to call him again only to find out he was still in Yuma or something.
At about 8:30 PM, with Otis heading off to his sleeping quarters, I started walking west, toward the truck stops and the I-10 interchange. Noticing the "Vacancy" sign at the Yacht Club, I went to the office to see what kind of deals they had, but the office was closed. So I kept walking west.
Knowing I had nowhere to sleep that night for free, I really wanted to get out of Quartzsite. Having walked pretty far down the road already, I decided to head the rest of the way to Love's truck stop and try to get a ride from there. I was still hoping to hear from Rudy, but by now I didn't expect a call from him.
After crossing the bridge over Interstate 10, I was only a few hundred feet from Love's, where a lot of eastbound vehicles were stopping to refuel. I was relieved to be off the bridge because the bridge doesn't have much room for pedestrians. But the street doesn't offer much pedestrian space, either, so I stayed as close to the edge of the pavement as possible. That's when it happened.
Trying to stay out of the path of traffic, I took a step, placing my left foot near the edge of the pavement, just like I'd done a million times before. Only this step wasn't like those other millions of steps. Oh I did it all wrong this time, and I wasn't real happy about it.
Instead of placing my foot near the edge of the asphalt, this time I placed my foot on the edge of the asphalt. With the inside of my foot remaining atop the asphalt and the outside of my foot over the edge of the asphalt, there was no support for the rest of my body's weight. As my foot buckled and snapped fully into a right angle (in relation to the rest of my leg), something popped loudly and I was on the ground. I didn't think I was going to get up from this. I thought my foot would be dangling from my leg whenever someone came to help me up.
To be continued...